Death and Health Care Costs

Taking a rational look at one to alleviate the burden it imposes on the other.


I read an interesting piece on by economist Martin A.Sullivan.  Sullivan has served as an economist for the U.S. Treasury Department, the congressional Joint Committee on Taxation, and a major accounting firm.  He was addressing the issue of health care costs in this country and it’s effects on our long-term budget issues.  Though I would take issue with his statement that “every expert will tell you that government-funded health care is THE cause of our long-term budget problems” I found his argument compelling regarding the need to address high medical costs as it relates to keeping people alive at all costs, especially the elderly.

The technology we have achieved today, including pharmaceutical advances, has enabled the mortality rates of developed nations to reach historical lows.  Data from the Congressional Research Service for the National Center for Health Statistics shows that on average Americans are living 30 more years than our ancestors did a century ago.  Women live longer on average at 80.1 years while men go to their graves around at 74.8 years of age.  If you reflect on this momentarily and then add to it the fact that the largest elderly population in our history is reaching that pinnacle of life, there becomes a real, though unpleasant, consideration we face as a nation in terms of sustaining life to the detriment of our economic survival.

Our health issues increase as we age and that means in our capitalistic society that unless you are comfortably wealthy your ability to pay for the medicines and treatments that prevent your health from deteriorating rapidly will seriously be jeopardized if your income is inadequate.  That would include a vast majority of us.  Without access to all that the “the greatest health care system in the world” has to offer, many of us will die sooner than those who can afford it.

Herein lies the crux of Sullivan’s argument and one that may have you angrily rejecting it at first.  Being that most people’s financial status is not going to change significantly, should these costs be imposed on the general population even though it could slow economic recovery for decades?  That of course is an ethical question that various representatives of society need to confront.  Younger people would be inclined to reject such expenses while many of the elderly could make legitimate arguments to the contrary.

At age 62, I am closer to that point in life where there is less future to plan for and more time to consider what sort of legacy I would like to leave behind.  Sullivan points out in his article that the “fear of death” is a factor that motivates many decisions on this issue and this fear is exploited wrongfully by perhaps both sides of the political spectrum to further their agenda.

Both sides however agree that life is precious and has great value, but that it all comes to an end sometime.  That is a reality that as far as I can see will never change, nor do I think it should.  Egad, do we really want to live forever even if we are as healthy as an adolescent?  Life for the most part becomes boring, simply because we can’t refresh it as Lucy Whitmore did in the excellent romantic comedy 50 First Dates.  Not everyone has the financial resources either to fulfill expensive “bucket list” wishes but even if they did, those would soon be fulfilled and the mundane routines of living would still be confronting us.

So what are we left with here?  From my perspective we first need to overcome our fear of death.  A list of these fears are found in an article by Angela Morrow, RN, who suggests that there are such things as “good deaths”; deaths that are made “more difficult to achieve when death is feared — an important reason to try to face the fear and perhaps overcome it.”  Of the six types of death she mentions the one that applies to me is the fear of pain and suffering.

I no longer worry about an afterlife.  I kind of hope there is one but nothing like the fundamentalist view of a heaven where a scornful God sends you to the fires of hell for rejecting church doctrine.  I am content with the fact that we all may simply be nothing more than worm food when our time ends.  I don’t worry either about how my death will affect loved ones I leave behind.  I feel certain they will overcome their grief in short order and go on to live their lives meaningfully – or not.  But I do fear a slow agonizing death from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

Life is meaningless I believe if it lacks the ability for one to live independently, without unbearable pain, and still have significant amounts of control on how and where we live. I think public funding should be required to keep all people alive to the point they can function with this bare minimum requirement.  Beyond that, I think we should have the option to remove ourselves from medical life support paid by others so we can pass onto the other life if there is one and eliminate the financial burden we impose on our family, friends and community.

The only thing I would fight for is a socially acceptable means of painless euthanasia in order to remove the fear of pain and suffering.  Surely this would be a cheaper public expense than the long-term health care many endure now.

Sarah Palin and her ilk may fear the imaginary “death panels” they have conjured up but I fear more the simple-minded notions of such people who feel it is their moral duty to keep us  alive at all costs until the capacity of medical science can no longer do so.  They may have some sort of delusion that only “God can end a life” but in the case of people who are enduring enormous pain, will no longer be able to change their own clothes or clean themselves after relieving their bowels or bladder, or simply have lost their mental faculties to do more than ambulate from one area to another, death would be a welcome reprieve.

As a society, we need to get past a moral indignation about allowing the critically ill to die and address our fears about death.  It’s not a thing that can be easily dealt with and of course the “only God can take a life” crowd will fight it despite the fact that they wish death on many of their adversaries.  But not only are we asking those who are at death’s threshold to live beyond their desire to do so, we are asking those who will survive them to suffer for years the economic hardships they will endure in their noble but ineffective attempts to preserve a life at all means.

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967)
It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
“Aha, my little dear,” I say,
“Your clan will pay me back one day.”

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3 responses to “Death and Health Care Costs

  1. Life is meaningless I believe if it lacks the ability for one to live independently, without unbearable pain, and still have significant amounts of control on how and where we live.

    Thank you. When your quality of life is gone, what kind of life is that? If someone is suffering from Alzheimer’s and wants to end it, they should have that option. Dying with dignity.

  2. I think the stigma of deciding your fate at the end of your life needs to go. People should be allowed to die with dignity no matter what age. Keeping people alive who obviously have no chance of living a quality life is unfair and cruel. I find it funny that those who fear death the most are those who claim to be so devout. I don’t know if there is an afterlife either. I am actually rooting for reincarnation. I could like that.

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